As the bitter debate over illegal immigration to the United States rages, the first of many planned barriers, a 295-mile-long wall, is being built through a remote desert corridor along the U.S.–Mexico border. This spells trouble, not just for people but for the jaguar, the Sonoran pronghorn, the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, and other imperiled animals that are already struggling to survive.
In the long yellow light of an Arizona afternoon, a young wildlife biologist named Emil McCain walks down a dry creek bed, eyes fixed on the dirt. “Sometimes I’ll run smack into a tree branch,” he laughs. “I’m always watching the ground.” This creek, tucked into rugged mountains about 50 miles south of Tucson, lies a few miles shy of the U.S.–Mexico border and a rough, dusty drive from pavement. But for McCain, this remote spot is familiar territory. He has spent much of the past three years here, braving heat, isolation, and blisters, all in hopes of spotting signs of jaguars.
His quest has paid off—not once but dozens of times. McCain works for the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project, a tiny nonprofit group that monitors motion-sensitive cameras throughout these mountains. Since 2001 the cameras have collected more than 80 photos of at least two male jaguars, one of which has a range of about 525 square miles, an area larger than Grand Teton National Park. McCain, who taught himself to track animals during his childhood in rural southern Colorado, spends his walk in the creek bed scanning for tracks, scat, and possible jaguar “scrapes”—gashes in the dirt made to mark territory.
Although dozens of jaguars were trapped or shot in the Southwest in the early and mid-1900s, the species was thought to have disappeared from southern Arizona and New Mexico, largely from hunting and habitat loss. But in March 1996 a rancher named Warner Glenn followed his hunting dogs into the wilderness along the Arizona–New Mexico border, and found himself staring at the unmistakable black spots of a jaguar—a hefty, full-grown male. Glenn raised a camera instead of a rifle, and returned home with the first known photograph of a live jaguar north of the border.
Six months later, in another mountain range, hunter Jack Childs and his wife, Anna Mary, also followed their dogs to within 30 feet of a jaguar. “It was beyond words,” says Childs, still stunned by the experience more than a decade later. Unable to forget the jaguar he saw, Jack Childs launched the Borderlands Jaguar Detection Project.
Why, and for exactly how long, these jaguars have dwelled in the Southwest is something of a mystery. What is clear is that the jaguars seen in Arizona hold little regard for political boundaries.
The remote, unforgiving, staggeringly diverse country that straddles the border between Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora is one of the most politicized landscapes in the world, a place long caught up in the ferocious international debate over immigration. Solid fences and other barriers are now expanding along the entire southwestern border, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has committed to building 295 miles of new border fencing by the end of 2008. Largely forgotten in these plans, however, are the jaguar, the chronically endangered Sonoran pronghorn—now making a tenuous U.S. recovery in southwestern Arizona—and scores of lesser-known creatures. While barricades reach into the wild country of southern Arizona and beyond, these species await the consequences.
“If the wall goes up, it will be a complete and absolute barrier for terrestrial wildlife,” says Christine Hass, assistant director of the Audubon Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch, in Elgin, Arizona, and a wildlife ecologist who has studied carnivores in the region for more than a decade. “It has the potential to have more impact here than anything we’ve ever seen.”
The Arizona–Sonora border is often imagined as a stretch of naked desert, punctuated only by a couple of forlorn cacti. While the western part of the state certainly fits the desert stereotype, in southeastern Arizona and northeastern Sonora, where jaguars roam, mountains rise from the desert floor into shady evergreen islands of spruce and fir. Here, in the so-called Sky Islands, the tropics nudge into the Southwest, and Canada extends a cool finger into Sonora, creating a biological melting pot that includes not only black bears and mountain lions but also troops of coatis—a tropical relative of the raccoon—and flashy birds, including trogons and parrots. In these mountains, hikers on the lookout for rattlesnakes might instead encounter a vine snake, a pencil-thin tropical species that can grow to five feet.
For years Arizona’s remote deserts and forests were quiet places, frequented primarily by hikers, hunters, and a trickle of border crossers. That changed in the mid-1990s, when the U.S. Border Patrol started cracking down on illegal crossings in border cities. The mountains and deserts, policy makers thought, were barriers unto themselves, forbidding enough to scare off would-be border crossers.
They were wrong. Between 1993 and 1996, while apprehensions of illegal crossers declined in San Diego and El Paso, overall apprehensions increased, and those in Arizona nearly tripled. The Arizona border, the most heavily traveled in the Southwest, tallied 303,800 apprehensions—44 percent of the total—between October 1, 2006, and June 30, 2007.
More and more crossers began attempting the brutally hot and dry federal lands in southwestern Arizona, often with fatal results. Migrant deaths along the border shot up in the mid-1990s, and despite rescue efforts by the Border Patrol and humanitarian groups, dozens of people continue to die of dehydration and exposure each summer. Land managers in border refuges and parks routinely find signs of desperate passage: infant diapers, a roll of family pictures from Mexico, a backpack discarded in a final, frantic moment.
Drug smugglers also brought weapons and rivalries to the desert, and violent deaths became part of the landscape. Illegal immigrants have been caught in the crossfire, and in the summer of 2002 a National Park Service law-enforcement ranger named Kris Eggle was killed while helping the Border Patrol catch two men suspected in a string of drug-related murders. In early 2007 drug smuggling activity in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument had gotten so bad that park officials effectively closed the park’s backcountry to visitors until further notice.
The toll on habitat mounted, too. Vans, trucks, and cars stuffed with dozens of border crossers streamed through untracked desert, only to be abandoned when they broke down or encountered impassable terrain. Border Patrol enforcement and rescue operations sliced into wilderness areas, compounding the damage. Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, which encompasses a wilderness area larger than Rhode Island, now has between 400 and 500 miles of entrenched illegal roads, some 150 feet wide, with secondary impacts to match. “We measure trash in the tons,” says refuge manager Roger Di Rosa.
The refuge, about 100 miles southwest of Phoenix as the raven flies, is key habitat for the Sonoran pronghorn, which was endangered even before there was an Endangered Species Act. (It was protected in 1967 under a precursor to the modern act.) Built like a small deer, pronghorn have bulging eyes, delicate muzzles, and the fleetest feet of any land mammal in North America, capable of 60-mile-an-hour sprints. The Sonoran subspecies of pronghorn may have once numbered in the thousands, but during the past century highways and fences crisscrossed its habitat and hunting hastened its decline, restricting it to small populations in Arizona and Sonora. The boom in border traffic not only tore into pronghorn habitat but also stretched the time and resources of many land managers. Between 2001 and 2002, during a prolonged dry spell, the Sonoran pronghorn population in Arizona plummeted from 150 animals to an estimated 21.
Illegal immigration is, of course, the subject of fierce controversy, and proposed solutions—including the immigration bill that died in the U.S. Senate this past summer—usually create more conflict than they resolve. But on Arizona’s southern border, among those who deal with the situation’s realities, there are glimmers of agreement.
Most say that vehicle barriers—sturdy, chest-high steel pipes placed about four feet apart—are needed in many places to slow the flow of motorized traffic across the deserts, protecting both human life and wildlife habitat while allowing people and animals to move across the border. “Everyone wanted vehicle barriers,” says Di Rosa.
Various types of vehicle barriers now stretch for more than 70 miles along the Arizona border, across the southern edges of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, and other federal and tribal lands. By the end of next year the Department of Homeland Security expects to have installed more than 240 miles of barriers along the Arizona border.
“We’re not going to call vehicle barriers a solution—the real solution is comprehensive immigration reform—but we support the land managers who need them,” says Jenny Neeley, a longtime environmental advocate who until recently was the Southwest representative with Defenders of Wildlife in Tucson.
What few land managers and other professionals on the Arizona border say they want, however, is a fence—more precisely, a “pedestrian fence,” a more or less solid wall designed to keep out not only cars and trucks but also people on foot. The Border Patrol has long used fences in urban areas, where crossers can almost instantly disappear into city crowds, and the few minutes of delay afforded by a fence can make the difference between capture and escape. But in remote places, the pace of the chase slows, since crossers must walk for hours—sometimes days—before reaching a highway or city.
“There’s no reason to plunk down a fence in areas that have no strategic advantage,” says Dion Ethell, public lands liaison for the Tucson sector of the Border Patrol.
Yet a border fence is exactly what Congress approved in 2006. In late October President George W. Bush signed the Secure Fence Act, which called for more than 700 miles of double-layer fence along the southwestern border, including the nearly 400-mile stretch between Calexico, California, and Douglas, Arizona.
Many Democrats dismissed the bill as election-year politicking. “You show me a 50-foot wall, and I’ll show you a 51-foot ladder,” scoffed Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano after the bill was passed. Though the fence itself has received no specific funding, the Department of Homeland Security has promised to build 295 miles of new border fencing by the end of next year, including more than 130 miles in Arizona. The construction is part of a suite of projects that also includes high-tech “virtual” fencing and a steep increase in the number of Border Patrol agents.
In far-western Arizona fence construction is already under way. In the summer of 2006 the Border Patrol was completing its environmental analysis of vehicle barriers for the 37-mile-long southernmost border of the Barry M. Goldwater Range. The plan, supported by the U.S. Marine Corps (which is responsible for the western part of the Goldwater Range) and other border agencies, was part of a coordinated effort to install vehicle barriers along both the Goldwater Range and the adjoining Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.
But in Washington, D.C., other proposals were afoot. Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA), a cosponsor of the Secure Fence Act and then chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called for the construction of a pedestrian fence along the Goldwater Range, citing disruptions to military training activities. “A complete fencing solution is called for—partial or virtual fences won’t work,” he stated last September, shortly before announcing his intention to run for the Republican presidential nomination.
By late summer of 2006 the Department of Homeland Security was informing federal agency officials in Arizona that the planned vehicle barriers would be expanded into a fence. This past January Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff waived the federal laws requiring environmental review of the project—a move permitted under the 2005 REAL ID Act, which granted him broad authority to waive laws when doing so was deemed necessary to “ensure expeditious construction” of border barriers and roads.
“We never asked for a fence, and we still haven’t asked for a fence,” says Ron Pearce, range manager for the Marine Corps’ section of the Goldwater Range. Illegal border traffic through the range has hampered military operations, he says, but the situation has improved thanks to some far more basic measures, such as the establishment of radio communication between Border Patrol and military personnel. “The fence doesn’t make any difference to our operations,” he says. “I don’t think it does any damage, but I don’t think it’ll do much good, and I hate to see money wasted.”
On the southernmost border of the Goldwater Range, the ongoing fence construction has been funded by a border-wide program called the Secure Border Initiative. The 15-foot-high fence sections, single panels of heavy-duty steel mesh, are attached to posts with thick metal bands. This fence—the Department of Homeland Security calls it a “hybrid fence”—is currently slated to extend along the international border almost all the way to the western edge of Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge. It’s clearly impassable for any large, four-footed mammal, but the lower edge of the fence is periodically perforated with ladderlike trios of small slits, designed to allow the flat-tailed horned lizard—a species long proposed for federal protection—to climb through without a passport. Visible through the mesh, just a few hundred yards away, is Mexico Highway 2 and its procession of buses and tractor trailers.
The fence now extends for less than a mile toward the eastern horizon, and the vehicle barriers continue past it for an additional seven miles or so. Beyond that, soon to be divided, is open desert, where nothing but blowing sand marks the border.
Where will the fence go next? The Department of Homeland Security recently proposed building a pedestrian fence along most of the southern border of the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, about an hour’s drive southwest of Tucson. The waiver signed by Secretary Chertoff last January exempts the Goldwater project from a panoply of laws, including the National Wildlife Refuge System Administration Act, hinting that the adjoining Cabeza Prieta refuge may be next in line. “I didn’t wake up with Stupid tattooed anywhere on my body,” says refuge manager Roger Di Rosa. “So, yes, I think it could happen on the refuge.”
The Sonoran pronghorn populations in Arizona and Mexico have long been separated by Mexico Highway 2, so a fence on the southern border of the refuge wouldn’t further restrict these already isolated herds. It’s the fence next door, in the Goldwater Range, that’s most likely to complicate things; by pushing border traffic eastward into Cabeza Prieta, it could disrupt the pronghorn’s recent and modest recovery in Arizona.
In 2002, when the state’s pronghorn population “was nearing extinction,” says Curt McCasland, assistant refuge manager, agencies hastily organized a captive breeding program to coax it off the critical list. Does now nurse their fawns in a one-square-mile fenced area on the refuge, where an irrigation system ensures some vegetation is plump and green, and four young adult males have been successfully released into the wild. The Arizona population stands at an estimated 68, and wildlife managers, in optimistic moments, talk about establishing a second population in the state.
Farther east along the Arizona border, toward the Sky Islands, new sections of fence would pose other problems. “The biggest impacts would be on animals that have core areas in Mexico,” says ecologist Christine Hass of Audubon’s Appleton-Whittell Research Ranch. Solid fencing in southeastern Arizona, she says, would fragment habitat not only for large mammals such as the jaguar but also for the coati, two species of skunks, and the tiny Coues deer, a subspecies of white-tailed deer, called “the gray ghost” for its ability to seemingly vanish into the landscape. Because populations divided by the fence would have smaller pools of prospective mates, their genetic diversity—and, with it, their ability to withstand disease, environmental stresses, and other challenges—is likely to erode. “These species may have viable populations north of the border, but they’d certainly be better off with gene flow from the south,” says Hass.
Even wings may not deliver animals from their predicament. “People think birds are going to tear off and fly anywhere they want, but that’s not the case for specialists like the pygmy owl,” says Aaron Flesch, a researcher at the University of Arizona who studies owls in northern Sonora. He has found that the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl—extremely rare in southern Arizona and declining in Sonora—rarely flies more than 12 feet off the ground and avoids open areas. For the pygmy owl, and other highly restricted birds such as the Gould’s turkey, a border fence may be impassable.
Jaguar biologist Emil McCain has no doubt what the fence would mean in Arizona for the jaguar, listed on the federal endangered species rolls for a decade. “It would be totally catastrophic,” he says, pointing out that the Sky Islands of southeastern Arizona are the northernmost reach of Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental Range. “It’s probably the finest example of habitat fragmentation you can think of. If we slice off this end of the range, big carnivores would suffer most, but nothing would do well on this side of the line.” The fence, say conservationists, would also end dreams of reintroducing the species in southern Arizona.
What the fence would mean for the core population of jaguars in Sonora is not so clear. Biologist Alan Rabinowitz of the Wildlife Conservation Society, a longtime champion of jaguar protection, argues that despite years of looking, biologists have solid evidence for only one resident jaguar—nicknamed Macho B—north of the border. (The other frequently photographed jaguar, Macho A, has not been caught on camera since 2004, and the other jaguars sighted during the past decade are assumed by many to be wandering bachelors, making brief forays north of the border.) While the fence would isolate Macho B from potential mates and prey south of the border, he says, that’s unlikely to have much impact on the Sonora population, already struggling to survive in a harsh, dry habitat with scarce prey.
McCain and his colleagues aren’t about to give up, saying that they’ve only begun to explore the remote reaches of the borderlands. Sergio Avila, a biologist with the nonprofit Sky Island Alliance in Tucson, recently set up a dozen motion-sensitive cameras just south of the border (see “To the Future of the Jaguar and the Ocelot,” below), hoping to document jaguar movements in the little-studied ranchlands of far-northern Sonora.
The public forest north of the border serves as a refuge, McCain believes, as evidenced by the sporadic but continuing jaguar sightings in Arizona. Last year rancher Warner Glenn, who made the initial jaguar sighting in 1996, spotted a second jaguar, this one across the state line in New Mexico, this one loping south toward the Mexican border. “It doesn’t matter that there are more animals in Mexico,” says McCain. “Mexico also has overgrazing and poaching of the jaguars themselves. This is a refuge here.”
McCain continues to live amid his cameras, in a breezy, ramshackle ranch house just four miles north of the border. As canyon wrens whisk up and down the chimney, he fires up his computer to show a grainy black-and-white video. The clip, collected from one of his cameras, reveals a jaguar lifting his tail and spraying to mark his territory.
“That shows that he’s talking to somebody,” McCain says, musing over the few seconds of movement on the screen. “He’s saying, ‘I’m here,’ which could be to drive away another male. Or it could be to attract a female.”
Whether a female—and thus a potential resident breeding pair—lives north of the Arizona–Sonora line is one of the borderlands’ most elusive mysteries, and McCain can only hope that fences won’t interrupt his search. “I’m sure there’s a female. I’m positive,” he says. “I set out every day thinking, ‘Where am I going to find her?’ But for all I know, she could be right across the border.”
Michelle Nijhuis has written about science and the environment for High Country News, Orion, and Smithsonian.
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“To the Future of the Jaguar and Ocelot”
While fencing projects rumble forward, the borderlands continue to reveal new wonders. Just a few dozen miles south of the Arizona border, in the Mexican Sky Islands, Sergio Avila is exploring little-known territory.
A biologist with the Sky Islands Alliance, a nonprofit group based in Tucson, Avila studies the area between the northernmost known breeding population of jaguars—the animals in and around the Los Pavos Ranch, a 10,000-acre reserve about 130 miles south of the border—and the jaguars sighted over the past decade in southern Arizona.
“We wanted to find out what was going on down here,” says Avila, a native of central Mexico. “We’re not only doing jaguar work but also getting to know people, and letting them get to know us.”
Unlike the northern end of the Sky Islands region, which is largely public forest, much of the Sonoran part is private ranchland. So Avila has put his fluent Spanish and easy grin to work, gradually building relationships with ranchers.
When Carlos Robles allowed Avila to set up cameras on his ranch last spring, the results came quickly. The first rolls of film Avila developed held an image of a slender feline figure, about the size of a cocker spaniel, captured mid-stride in a sunny valley. It was not a jaguar but an ocelot. There are two small breeding populations of ocelots in far southeastern Texas—fewer than 100 individuals in all—and the species is well documented in more tropical areas south of the border. But ocelots are only rumored to persist in Arizona, and are thought to be very rare in the deserts of far-northern Sonora.
On a recent evening, Robles and Avila and several of Avila’s colleagues sat in the Robles ranch kitchen, talking amiably but cautiously about the ocelot, the borderlands, and the future of their work together. Robles was raised on this ranch, and has lived and worked here all his life, carrying on a tradition his family began in 1934. “I grew up with the sound of cattle around me,” says Robles, whose ranch now hosts birdwatchers and hunters as well as cows. While most of his neighbors, he adds, still consider it a badge of honor to shoot a wild cat, he feels differently. Robles gives a heartfelt speech about his desire to protect his land for future generations—“The river needs children to bathe in it,” he says in Spanish—and vows to support Avila as he searches the still-unknown reaches of the Sky Islands for jaguars.
“I just want to hug everyone,” jokes Avila, laughing. “I’ve been waiting years to have a conversation like this.” Robles pulls out a bottle of tequila, pours shots for his new companions, and raises his own glass: “Al futuro del jaguar y el ocelote” (“To the future of the jaguar and the ocelot”). Robles and Avila grin at each other, drain their glasses, and head outside for a look at the Sonoran stars.—M.N.
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